Research: how widespread is abuse in foster care?

Michelle Drumm reviews evidence of maltreatment of children in foster care and local authority responses to allegations

Michelle Drumm looks at the evidence on allegations of maltreatment of children in foster care and local authority responses to allegations

Key words: Foster care Maltreatment Abuse 

Authors: Nina Biehal and Elizabeth ParryNina Biehal and Elizabeth Par

Title: Maltreatment and allegations of maltreatment in foster care. A review of the evidence. Published by the Social Policy Research Unit, University of York, 2010, 52 pages.

Aim: To bring together the evidence that exists on allegations of abuse and confirmed maltreatment in foster care, and to consider the implications of the available evidence.

Methodology: A literature search strategy was developed in collaboration with the York Health Economics Consortium, which undertook the searches. The titles and abstracts identified assessed for eligibility by the and narrative synthesis was used to assess and present the findings.

Conclusion: Evidence on maltreatment and allegations of maltreatment in foster care is limited and inconclusive. Little evidence is available on the frequency of allegations or the extent of confirmed maltreatment in the UK, and a much more detailed study is required to achieve this.

This review addresses the sensitive issue of allegations of abuse against foster carers, as well as the more serious cases of substantiated allegations of abuse. It was conducted by the University of York in partnership with the Fostering Network and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.


Evidence collected since the mid-1980s suggests that unfounded allegations of abuse are detrimental to foster care services. The effects of the allegations were threefold: the children involved could be removed from the placement; the foster carers might suffer emotional trauma – in one study, more than half of the carers reported that the experience of being investigated put them off fostering; and the foster care service as a whole was negatively affected.

Surveys of foster carers who faced allegations of abuse reported that, in between one-third and one-half of cases, the child was removed from care and, in a small number, all children in the placement were removed. It has also been found that social work departments handle cases differently. A survey of 59 social services departments found that in 22% of them the foster child concerned was removed, in 15% of cases all of the foster children in the placement were removed, and in 12% of departments all of the children in the foster home were removed.

This indicates that, in about half of all departments, the child in question was routinely removed.

There was uncertainty for both foster carers and social workers regarding the processes of investigation. Carers suffered from a lack of information and support and professionals were uncertain of their role in relation to how much support to offer the carer. Local authorities relied heavily on the police for advice on these issues.

Evidence on allegations of abuse

The review focused on the proportion of foster carers who faced allegations of abuse, the proportion for whom these allegations were substantiated, and the children who experienced confirmed maltreatment in foster care. The challenge with this focus is that most of the evidence was based on allegations rather than substantiated abuse, making it difficult to gain a full picture. Some surveys focused on foster carers, whereas others focused on agencies, leading to a discrepancy in results. Many of the studies cited also used largely non-representational sample responses.

A web-based survey of 5,000 Fostering Network members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (with a 20% response rate) found that 35% of carers had experienced an allegation of abuse. A Scotland study reported similar results with 31% of respondents claiming that an allegation had been made against them.

A survey of agencies (NFCA Agency Survey, 1996), which achieved a 45% response rate, indicated that 4% of foster homes had been investigated as a result of allegations, and that in 22% of these cases, the allegation had been substantiated, resulting in just under 1% confirmed maltreatment in all foster homes in the survey.

A Scottish agency survey (Scottish Survey, 2000) of the nation’s 32 local authorities (2,149 foster carers), reported 75 allegations of abuse, affecting 3.5% of fostering households. In this case, no information was provided on the number of substantiated cases of maltreatment.

More evidence on the prevalence of maltreatment in foster care can be gleaned from studies in the US. However, although the UK studies report retrospectively on ­children or carers’ experiences, the US ­studies report on the annual rate of ­allegations or substantiated maltreatment identified. Differences in child welfare ­systems and processes for recruiting and training foster carers also affect the comparisons that can be made.

The two national UK studies conducted in the mid-1990s which examined the annual incidence of allegations would suggest that 3.5-5% of foster carers in the UK may experience allegations of abuse in a single year, with substantiated reports of maltreatment of less than 1%.

Issues around maltreatment

No detailed evidence is available about the types and severity of maltreatment in foster care. The definition of “maltreatment” is a grey area, ranging from gross abuse to minor incidents. Some studies focused on alleged maltreatment and others on substantiated, which made it all the more difficult to define.

Data received from a survey of designated officers in local authorities in England and Wales showed that 59% of allegations concerned physical abuse, 19% sexual abuse and 10% neglect.

The emotional abuse of children in foster care has been overlooked in most of the studies, and the voices of the children in placements are, for the most part, unheard. This leaves gaps in understanding what prompts children to seek help, why, and how they feel about the support they receive.

The limited evidence available reveals that other children in the family might be the perpetrators of the abuse rather than the carers themselves. UK and international studies report that maltreatment in foster care is less likely in kinship care than in non-relative settings.

As regards the victims, a number of British studies suggest that girls are more likely to be sexually abused in foster care than boys. Evidence from the US reports similar results. It was also found that disabled children are at greater risk of abuse and neglect.

Most of the evidence on comparisons of maltreatment in other settings is ­available from American studies, which would suggest that allegations of abuse may be higher for foster carers than for the general population, but no reliable UK evidence is available. The threshold for poor parenting practices also seems to be lower for foster carers than it would be for birth parents.

However, having no agreement on what defines behaviour as abusive or neglectful across the spectrum of care, and not just foster care, makes it difficult to measure thresholds. Indicators of poor practice by foster carers, which could be addressed by provision of support and guidance, and actual abuse, which may require a full child protection investigation, are not clearly defined.


This review is thorough, well referenced and tidy, and highlights the obvious gaps in the knowledge of policymakers, practitioners and academic communities. In exposing these, it makes a strong argument for a more in-depth study on maltreatment and allegations of maltreatment in foster care in the UK.

Practice implications

For staff and managers:

● Staff may need further training on support for foster carers who have allegations of maltreatment made against them.

● Close attention needs to be paid to the voice of the children involved in allegations and staff may need further training on the best support to be offered.

For directors of children’s services:

● Clear procedures for investigation of allegations need to be put in place in social work departments.

For policymakers:

● Greater knowledge and awareness of maltreatment and allegations of maltreatment in foster care is required.

● A study of perpetrators of maltreatment is needed so agencies can develop preventive strategies to protect looked-after children.

● Thresholds need to be clearly defined if agencies are to differentiate between poor standards of care and actual maltreatment.

Michelle Drumm is knowledge and information assistant, Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services

Further reading

Handling Allegations of Abuse Made Against Adults who Work with Children and Young People, Department for Children Schools and Families (2009).

Allegations in Foster Care: a UK Study of Foster Carers’ Experiences of Allegations, The Fostering Network (2006).

Caring For Our Children, The Fostering Network Scotland (2005).

Delivering Foster Care, British Association for Adoption and Fostering (2000).

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